Lab Notes

Don’t Be a Hero – Advice for a PM

There’s a prevailing archetype of the product manager as a superhero, CEO, fearless leader, and ultimate decider. See her there, standing at the top of the full stack, her cape blowing in the wind, platform data streaming into one ear, customer insight into the other, and beautiful, perfect feature prioritization methodically getting channeled into Trello/Jira/Aha etc., etc….

Of course, the reality is that many of the decisions PMs make are bets. It’s been discussed at length in the product management world and proclaimed across the digital fields of Twitter. It also follows that PMs need to be leveraging engagement data and customer insights to make the smartest bets possible.

What hasn’t been widely acknowledged is that these heroic, intrepid PMs are often missing something. They’re missing data from an incredibly important group of power users: their own team.

Are you cringing? Nodding? About to go get coffee because it’s 2 p.m. on Tuesday? Stay with me here.

Many in the digital product world guard their roles carefully. “It’s my job to say ‘no!’ Why would I ask for more ideas to say ‘no’ to?” For many, this is how they view insights submitted by their coworkers. They’re already staring at a long backlog of very specific feedback and ideas that have bubbled up from existing customers, potential customers, and company leaders. They’re often struggling to avoid letting these outside insights derail priorities, waste time, or (worst of all) lead to riskier bets.

But here’s the thing: Product ideas are actually a-dime-a-dozen. There’s no end to the ways in which people would like to see your product function differently, just as there are endless flavors of ice cream. Where your team can add real value — and be the wind in your product superhero cape — is in calling out and helping to solve real problems.

See if you can spot the difference:

  1. “Hey, I want the ‘submit’ button to be blue and also blink until someone clicks it.”
  2. “We aren’t getting the conversion rate we’d like to see on this page. We need to figure out how to get more people to hit ‘submit.’”

Getting an insight like #2 is at least potentially useful, but it’s still missing something. To do this well, you need to guide your team to identify problems that are affecting your company’s most important metrics.

Arm your whole company with an understanding of what success means, both descriptive and numerical, and you’ll get a whole new kind of insight into where your product needs the most attention.

Same game, new options:

  1. “We aren’t getting the conversion rate we’d like to see on this page. We need to figure out how to get more people to hit ‘submit.’”
  2. “As a team, we’re looking to maintain a week-over-week growth of 10%. Our top-of-funnel is lagging, and one driver is low conversions from this form.”

The difference here requires clarity around company level metric goals and potential visibility into platform data. The former is absolutely necessary; the latter helps your team go from hunches to specific validated problems.

“OK, but this sounds like work for my whole team, who, in case you didn’t know, already have jobs!” That’s a legitimate concern that should motivate PMs to solve for a steady influx of ideas and input. Give your team a predictable process and cadence for them to submit problems. Whether it’s monthly, quarterly, bi-yearly, whatever works best for you. Be sure to ask them for:

  • The problem
  • Why they know it’s a problem
  • Company metrics affected
  • Initial solution ideas

From there, you might choose to add problem voting and advocacy into your process, or you can simply absorb this new data set into your own prioritization.

In either case, you’ll have some new responsibility: As potential problems roll in, it’s important to address which ones will be translated into future feature sets and why. The great thing about communicating this out generally is that, if and when someone comes to you with an on-fire need that must be built immediately, you can remind them of the process, what problems you’re already moving forward with, and how they can add that issue into the next cycle.

In the wise words of Jewel: “In the end, only metrics matter.” Bringing your team into the production process will make your product more effective and, in the end, more successful.

Kate Nolan is a Solution Lead at GoKart Labs. A startup professional skilled at listening, diagnosing needs, and helping founders find what they need, she was one of the first employees at 1776, a public benefit corporation that empowers startup ecosystems around the world to solve complex challenges.  Kate not only helps founders, but is also a founder herself who recently launched Popover as a GoKart Ventures partnership. Popover is a social tool that makes it easier for busy adults and families to get help, lend a hand and stay close to your best friends.

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